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Molly Beauchemin

Why Do Students Give Apples To Teachers?

In America, apples are synonymous with Fall and “Back to School” season– ubiquitous as classroom decorations and in school lunches across the country. As a symbol for teaching and learning, they are an apt metaphor: they are not always sweet, and when they are it is tempered by their crispness and their crunch.

As one of the oldest fruits known to humans (the earliest apple seeds have been carbon dated to 6,500 B.C.E.), apples have long been a beloved fruit, popular among the great and ancient civilizations of Egypt and Rome. Originating in Kazakhstan as a small, seedy, bitter fruit, apples spread along the Silk Road to East Asia, Europe, and Africa over the course of centuries. Over time, humans and animals selected for larger, sweeter varieties. The apples we eat today are thought to be similar to those grown in Persia circa 500 B.C.E.

Apples, however, have not always had an honorable reputation. In Greek mythology, a (golden) apple was the cause of the Trojan War; in the Bible, an apple was believed to be responsible for the downfall for mankind (though in the original text, it is merely a fruit–a translator mistakenly attributed it to an apple); and in the fairytale, it was a poisoned apple that nearly killed Snow White.

Even in American history, apples have not escaped criticism: Temperance advocates during the nineteenth century targeted apples (then a very bitter fruit, well-suited to being pressed) as the source of hard apple cider, which was at the time a common drink. To avoid financial disaster, farmers began growing sweeter apples, which could be eaten directly, and turned to marketing to rebrand them– to great success. By emphasizing apples’ healthful benefits with phrases like “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” apples secured their place in Americana, coming to symbolize a versatile, healthy snack.

The practice of compensating teachers with apples has its origins in Denmark and Sweden. As early as the sixteenth century, poorer students brought potatoes and apples in lieu of paying tuition dues. Some theories suggest the apple became the more popular choice for teachers over potatoes because of its association with the Tree of Knowledge in the Bible, while other sources argue it is because the apple is more versatile than the potato.

In early America, teachers living on the frontier or in rural areas were often fed and housed by the community, and apples once again became the symbol for pedagogic respect. At the turn of the century, apples were an omnipresent American crop. When need dictated that early colonial settlers should clear and tend three acres of land, apples–as a hardy, adaptable tree–had been the logical choice. John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, famously brought apples to the West, often planting them on new land grants for early pioneers to enjoy.

As a staple of frontier homes, apples were an easy gift for teachers, a sign of gratitude for educators who were often in charge of many children of varying ages. Even after the government took over paying teachers’ wages, apples persisted as a token of appreciation.

Today, apples are an immensely popular fruit worldwide, with over 7,500 known varieties. They can be baked, pressed, dried, simmered, fermented, poached, mulled, grilled, shredded, dipped in caramel, added to smoothies, and, of course, eaten just as they are.

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